Book Review: Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

Shadow of NightShadow of Night is book #2 in Deborah Harkness’s All Soul’s Trilogy, which kicked off last year with bestseller A Discovery of Witches. At the time ADOW was published, I remember scads of reviews referring to it as “Twilight for grown-ups”, which is and isn’t a fair comparison.

True, ADOW has as its focal point a forbidden romance between a witch and a vampire… and we all know that LOVE + VAMPIRE = TWILIGHT, right? Calm down, I’m just kidding. ADOW is much more than a romance, and the intelligence and emotional truth at its core elevate it far above the standard, popular, seemingly endless supply of vampire fiction.

I loved the heck out of ADOW for its combination of smarts (Oxford professors! Secret manuscripts! Alchemy! Mitochondrial DNA!), supernatural beings (the aforementioned witch and vampire, plus their various and assorted family members, clans, secret societies, etc. Oh, and did I mention daemons?), and yes – be still my heart – passionate, forbidden love. Also, yoga, running, and rowing, for those who get hot and bothered by reading about exercise freaks.

ADOW ended with a plot point that left us hanging off the proverbial cliff, and Shadow of Night picks up the narrative mere moments after the conclusion of the first book. Witchy Diana Bishop and gorgeous vampire Matthew Clairmont have just timewalked back to Elizabethan England in the year 1590. Their goal is two-fold: to find a remedial witchcraft teacher for Diana, who never learned to use her talents, and to find the mysterious manuscript before the rest of the supernatural world gets to it.

First, bigger challenges await. Diana must learn to dress in awkward clothing, write with a quill, and speak with an accent that doesn’t scream “hello, I’m a time-traveler!” in order to fit in with the locals. And such locals! 1500-year-old Matthew has always been an important guy, and in the 1590s, he is a spy for Queen Elizabeth, a member of the powerful supernatural ruling body, the Congregation, and a member of the School of Night, a group of influential men which includes Sir Walter Raleigh, playwright Christopher Marlowe, and various other scholars and scientists of the time. A bit of a problem for me: I didn’t know who all of these historical figures actually were, so I had to sidetrack a bit in order to figure it out. Thank you, Wikipedia!

The plot moves from Oxford to London, France, and Prague. There are a ton of new characters introduced, some of whom matter more than others. How thoughtful of the publisher to give us a list of characters at the end – seriously, after a while I really needed it.

This is a dense, long book. At nearly 600 pages, there’s a lot to keep track of. I found it a bit slow-going for the first 75 – 100 pages, with too much time spent on Diana adjusting to life in 1590, and not enough emphasis on her relationship with Matthew. In addition, during the early sections, Diana and Matthew are surrounded by an entirely new cast of characters, and I thought the mood and urgency of the book suffered from the lack of the other people we’d come to care about in book one.

The pace definitely picks up once the couple travels to Sept-Tours in France, where Matthew reconnects with his family and he and Diana take the final steps toward formalizing and cementing their bonds. I was surprised by how moving I found this section. I won’t go into spoilers, but suffice it to say that Matthew’s reunion and reconciliation with one particular family member brought tears to my eyes.

Quibbles (there are always quibbles): Besides the enormous cast and the seemingly endless amount of period detail, there are two main items that bothered me about SON, and they’re significant plot points.

One, I still don’t fully buy the author’s concept of time travel. In these books, when Diana and Matthew step into the past, the 21st century version of Matthew essentially takes the place of the 16th century Matthew… so when they get to 1590, the Matthew who’d been there disappears (much to the consternation of his associates) and the new Matthew steps in, picking up his social life, his work connections, his obligations and his loyalties. When they leave, the old Matthew will presumably reappear and pick up where he left off, but can’t know what the new Matthew did during that time for fear of changing the future. Huh? Yeah, it all works, more or less, but I never really got on board with this presto-change-o business.

Secondly, the whole point of the timewalking was to find a teacher for Diana. They spend about two-thirds of the book searching for a witch to teach Diana how to be a witch (at a time when witch hunts are rampant, so this doesn’t necessarily sound like a smart plan, IMHO). When they finally find a witch mentor, however, I felt a bit short-changed; the story actually spends very little time on her lessons, so it felt to me that Diana made big leaps in her mastery of her powers without us seeing it happen.

Perhaps this makes it sound as though I didn’t care for the book, and that’s simply not the case. Let me make it clear: I loved Shadow of Night! I really couldn’t put it down, stayed up too late at night to read it, and even skipped TV nights so I could finish. (Now that’s devotion!). The author does a marvelous job with the love story, and I found Matthew and Diana’s trajectory through SON both captivating and electrifying. There are so many beautiful moments throughout the book, as well as moments of fear, tragedy, betrayal, and adventure. Ms. Harkness’s love of history shines through, and she clearly had a ball recreating life in Elizabeth’s England, from the clothing to the coins to the “latest” in scientific developments.

SON ends at a key turning point, and once I realized it was approaching, I found myself slowing down as I got nearer to the end of the book, not wanting to face the fact that this installment was done. I eagerly await the third and final book in the trilogy, and just hate not knowing THIS INSTANT how it all turns out. If you loved ADOW, then you simply have to read SON. And if you didn’t read ADOW, what are you waiting for? Read these books now!

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